Photo by Erica Browne Grivas
Studies show growing things and being in the garden have many benefits beyond beauty.
Photo by Erica Browne Grivas Studies show growing things and being in the garden have many benefits beyond beauty.

Being immersed in the garden does something special to you.

I think most gardeners have an instinctive understanding of this, the invisible connection with the land nourished by love and observation. One day years ago, I was wound up over something, and my husband called my attention to the brand-new “11” lines between my eyes. I then spent a couple of hours cleaning up in the garden. I don’t remember what specifically I was doing, but I remember washing my hands after finishing and looking in the mirror to find my forehead transformed back to a magically smooth landscape. Since then, I head to the garden as often as possible, but especially if there’s some tension to release.
This column has discussed before the healing benefits of nurturing someone else — be they animal or plant. Nothing propels you out your personal worry-sphere more than helping others. There is something about giving that replenishes us, that feels innately right. 

Horticultural therapy programs, popular in assisted living and correctional facilities, nurture the tenders along with the tended.

There are also the mood-lifting effects of exercise and movement, whether that’s weeding or hauling boulders for a new rock wall.

Ironically, as science advances, it is confirming this ancient, hidden-in-plain-sight truth that man is part of nature, not separate or above it, as humans sometimes like to think. 

 

Influencers of the external kind

For instance, the term “epigenetics,” which has exploded as a study in recent years, means “above the genes,” describing how the external environment can influence our internal gene expression. Humans evolved to wake, sleep and eat in sync with our bodies’ circadian rhythms, and our bodies notice when we fall out of sync.

Some inputs of epigenetics are tangible, such as fresh air or smoke, healthy vs. unhealthy bacteria. Others might be invisible or unconscious to us but send clear messages to our body and mind. Our microbiome and our exquisitely sensitive nerve system continuously scan the environment for signs of safety or danger, sending signals and creating a feedback loop of emotional and physical chain reactions perpetuating the body’s interpretation of that input.

 

The power of dirt

Soil contains a bacterium that can raise serotonin levels like an antidepressant would. The bacterium (Mycobacterium vaccae) when inhaled, absorbed through hands in the dirt or through abrasions, has been shown to improve moods of human cancer patients, and in rat studies to raise serotonin for up to three weeks. Serotonin deficiencies are linked to depression, anxiety, digestive issues, fibromyalgia, attention deficit and hyperactivity and more.

A 2021 study on mice indicates this bacterium, which has anti-inflammatory and immunoregulatory properties, can both promote stress resilience and mitigate physical effects of stress from factors such as lack of sleep or anxiety. Dirt not only boosts your spirits, but it also strengthens your immune system.

In “the farm effect,” children living on farms have on average 50 percent less asthma, allergies and gut-related disorders compared to those in more sterile, urban environments, a 2012 study reported. 

 

Vitamin D

Sunlight is another multivitamin for the immune system and mood. Being outdoors, especially early in the day, sets your circadian rhythms correctly as your retina takes in the sun’s signals, reminding the body to get going and up-regulating production of serotonin, the same way that darkness at night triggers melatonin for sleep. Sunshine also boosts vitamin D, which helps promote bone health and may forestall conditions like osteoporosis, can help heal eczema and acne and may prevent certain cancers.

 

Beyond one garden

Even more important than all these — though these are significant — is the effect gardens can have on your block, your state and the planet. Regenerative agriculture and pollinator-friendly practices can help heal the earth one garden at a time, and ensure we have food and water for the years ahead. Each decision you make to swap your lawn out for a pollinator garden or permeable paving, to use physical or organic pest controls, to buy organic produce and plants, to feed wildlife and clean waterways, to grow the soil as well as the tomatoes, is one that helps every being on the planet.

And to loop back to the emotional benefits, there are happy gardeners who want to share their bounty of seeds, plants and produce with their friends, and teach kids the joys of growing bean tunnels, which make that planet one worth living in, as a quote I heard recently reminded me.

“ … If you plant those bachelor buttons and they’re great for the pollinators, then you find solace in the garden and you’re nicer to your kids, then the effect that has on the planet, it makes all those late nights and early mornings worth it. It feels like what we’re supposed to do.” — Jill Jorgensen, creative director at Floret Flowers, “Growing Floret” miniseries.